Posts tagged writing
Posts tagged writing
The truth is, there’s a solution now that’s most of the way there: Markdown and a good text editor. That’s the new Word 5.1. Think about it: a program like TextMate has almost no window chrome, and opens almost instantly. You start typing, and that’s all you have to do.
I do almost all my personal writing in Notational Velocity, formatted in Markdown. It’s a nearly perfect combination.
As I’ve come to a time in my life where I desire to create more than anything else, many of the habits formed in the past five years are a detriment to that. I struggle greatly to focus on one task for any length. Even if I achieve that focus, I still find myself switching spaces, letting my thoughts drift to other subjects, my fingers seeking that source of new input.
There’s a constant need for those who create to balance consumption and production. Both go hand in hand, but especially with smartphones and the Internet, it’s increasingly easy to get stuck consuming. As Chris says, Twitter is the best example of this “tension.”
But one could spend a lifetime consuming and only scratch the surface of all the quality content that exists, and in the process, little of it would get the attention it deserves. One must accept that it’s impossible to keep up with all the content being produced, especially when it takes time just to discover what’s worth an investment of further time and attention. But if the web is treated not like a book that must be read from beginning to end, but like a magazine,2 then the overwhelming amount of content becomes not a burden, but an opportunity. It’s not easy to let go of the idea that we’re somehow missing out, but much more is missed by getting lost in consumption.
Accepting our finiteness allows us to take control, and to “seek depth,” which is Chris’s advice to both readers and writers:
If you want to write, do as best you can. Take your time and digest your work before offering it to others. When you’re reading, take your time and do it thoroughly as well. Trim that reading list if you have to. Limit your input in order to give yourself time to digest, meditate, and create your own things. Whatever they may be.
This is my booth at the pizza joint. I come here all the time with something to say. My Mac is nothing more than a overpriced pocket knife for me to scrawl stuff into it. And if I did not have that I would find a way. Because I have something to say. It’s what I do.
Find that thing that you do and do it. If it is, in fact, what you do, no tool will make you and no tool will stop you.
I expressed similar sentiments in my post about how better tools don’t make better writing. What does is writing itself. Tools can just as easily be a distraction as an aid.
Rhone’s words were inspired by a lengthy piece by John Carey, which talks, in part, about how the act of writing has been adulterated:
[Writing is] a task so basic and fundamental, in its essence it can be broken down to pen on paper or a stick in the sand. Yet here today we have a plethora of various writing applications because at some point in the past 15-20 years of modern technology we have managed to damage and greatly exaggerate the basic fundamentals of recording our thoughts and feelings into their written word. We have somehow sucked the romance out of it and turned it into nothing more than a means to reach an end.
No matter how good you may think you are at something the only true path to honestly calling yourself a professional is time, patience, and an unwavering knowledge and precision within your craft.
Actually doing is the key to any endeavor.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
-William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style
Good writing is like growing a bonsai. Persistence. Dedication. Trimming down to perfection. The resemblance is not in the size, however,1 but in the process:
The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation (for the viewer) and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity (for the grower). …bonsai practice focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees in a single container. ("Bonsai," Wikipedia)
With a blog, the long-term cultivation comes not from maintaining a single “bonsai,” but from continuously adding to the container. It is this dedication that ultimately sustains a blog.
The great thing about writing is the number of tools needed to do it effectively. There’s really only one: something to write with. Right now, for me, that’s my laptop (and my iPod Touch while on the go). In the past it’s been a pencil and notebook, and various computers.
There are other tools I use, and each has its purpose, but none of them make me a better writer. Writing makes me a better writer, and while the right tools (arguably) make me write more, and modern tools may make writing easier, none of them are essential in their own right.1 The only thing I really need is a reason to start: inspiration is more valuable than any accessory.
There’s a saying in photography that “the best camera is the one that’s with you.” The same can be said about writing: the best tool is the one that’s with you.2
It’s fitting that the book that seems to have originated (or at least popularized) that phrase is all about iPhone photography, and the iPhone is also one of the most accessible places to write. If we are to agree, at least for creative processes, that the best tool is the one you have with you, then something like the iPhone — powerful, versatile, and always in your pocket — is the best tool for a lot of things (with apps being key). ↩
I often compose snippets of writing in an unconventional text box: Alfred, my application launcher. If I have a sentence in mind, I can just hit Command-Space and start typing, and then copy it to the appropriate place after (Notational Velocity, a document, an email, Twitter, etc.). It removes another barrier to getting thoughts down. It’s also an easy way to compose a sentence from multiple sources, as I can quickly jump between them while Alfred remains just two taps away (but if Alfred is set to forget the last query after five minutes, be sure to copy often in case you stay long reading one source. I also use Jumpcut, which means I copy indiscriminately). Using an application launcher as a text input tool is especially useful when hand-copying a quote from a source like Google Books. It’s always available when needed, but stays perfectly out of the way, even when visible. I can’t think of a faster way to just start writing.
Of course, this technique works with any application launcher (as long as there’s no limit on the length of input), Alfred is merely what I’m currently using. And perhaps the large size of the input box is conducive to writing.
A bit ago I posted a quote from Terence Blacker about Twitter. He was wary of the service, because he felt that as a writer, experience and events are his greatest asset, and with Twitter, “one is spending that capital as soon as one acquires it. The tap is dripping all the time.” But instead of being a weakness, I think this is the power of Twitter. The tap is always dripping anyway, but now there’s something there to catch the drops. My mind is always full of ideas and thoughts and analysis. Some of it I keep to myself, some of it I file away for later (Notational Velocity and Simplenote have revolutionized my idea organization), some of it I expand upon (to post on my blog), and some of it — likely, most of it — I forget about. There’s no way to stop this constant flow of activity, and that’s the beauty of the human mind. But with Twitter, there’s a way to capture it.
While many would claim the imminent end of desktop software (at the benefit of mobile and web apps), my daily use of technology is still largely defined by the “classic” software I use, from old staples to new arrivals. In 2010, many great Mac apps continued to improve, and there were even some notable newcomers. Here’s a roundup of the Mac apps I regularly use, with a focus on what I used a lot over the past 12 months (in no particular order).
Plex has long been the best media manager on the Mac, and with the long-awaited release of Plex 9, the developers have outdone themselves, while further distinguishing Plex from its source, XBMC. Plex 9 is absolutely the best media manager on the Mac (or on any system, I would say), giving media collections the beautiful presentation and organization they deserve.
Notational Velocity, free
Notational Velocity is a staple among Mac aficionados, but I only recently became acquainted with it. It’s now become essential, and contains content as diverse as lecture notes, book summaries, quotes, ideas, lists, writing projects (this was written in Notational Velocity, mostly while on a plane), random thoughts, references and more. Simplenote sync keeps my notes with me at all times (thanks to the iPhone app), and anything I think of on-the-go is synced to my computer. Simply put, Notational Velocity has allowed me to organize my mind.
Quick Search Box, free
Developed in party by Nicholas Jitkoff, the same guy responsible for Quicksilver, Quick Search Box provides easy access to everything on my computer. Mostly I just use it to search my computer (it uses Spotlight’s excellent index, and includes Google Chrome bookmarks), and as an application launcher. It also keeps a clipboard history (but I use Jumpcut), and can manipulate files, so I’ll sometimes use it to move a file. There’s some very cool system integration: aside from clipboard history and the ability to manipulate files (get info, show in finder, move, rename, etc.), it provides access to menu items of all open programs, as well as things like “Empty Trash.” There’s some integration with Google’s cloud services, like the option to upload files to Google Docs, and the inclusion of Google Docs files in search.
Picasa’s not the best photo manager, and I’ve had plenty of issues with it. But it is one of the best free photo managers. And I like that, unlike some programs, almost all the metadata is written to the photo itself, so each file is self-contained, instead of relying on specific software (and folders are created in Finder for groups of photos). Geotagged location, tags, and description are all managed through the EXIF data. Unfortunately, Picasa is still missing features and there are some persistent issues, and new features are not very actively developed. I worry that Google’s focus on the cloud will cause Picasa to be ignored, at least as a self-contained photo manager (two of the most significant updates in the last year were integration with Picnik, the online photo editing site Google recently acquired, and better integration with Picasa Web). I’d love if Google were to open source Picasa and let the community develop it.
Hugin is incredible software. It allows the creation of seamless panoramas from adjacent photos, and it’s very advanced. All that’s needed from the user is a set of decent photos and a few nudges in the right direction, and Hugin does most of the work. Hugin is actively developed as well, and while the interface may not win any prizes, the technology is impressive. With the latest release (at the end of 2010), the developers write that “For the first time Hugin can be considered feature-complete.”
Simple and effective word processing. While a lack of footnotes and similar advanced features prevents Bean from being the only word processor I use, it remains my go-to text editor (aside from Notational Velocity), and for almost everything, it’s exactly what I need, without being too much.
Preview is my default image and PDF viewer. It’s lightweight and fast, and perfect for everyday use.
When I want a bit more options when working with PDFs, I open Skim. It’s an excellent PDF viewer, with a focus on notating files — adding text notes, highlighting, etc. It provides a searchable index of all notes and highlighted sections in a pane on the right. Everything is exportable in a number of formats as well.
Sparrow, free while in beta, freemium after
I’ve always avoided mail software, as Gmail’s web interface is sufficient for my needs, but I was won over by Sparrow (released in beta in October), which sports a beautiful and minimalist interface, while including most of Gmail’s features (notably missing is Priority Inbox, but the developers are considering adding it). Sparrow is one of the first apps to bring elements of an iOS interface to Mac OS X. Even in beta, it’s already very promising.
The classic DVD-ripping and video-encoding app, useful as ever.
Google Chrome, free
Google Chrome, my browser. Chrome is basically just a window to the web (and various “web apps”), but it’s an impressive and elegant window at that, and deserves a mention, as the single program I undoubtedly spend the most time using.
I’ve resisted installing an office suite for some time, but with college’s demand for footnotes and presentations, along with the excitement of a re-invigorated and truly-open Office, I finally installed
OpenOffice LibreOffice. It may be slow, cluttered and huge, but it gets the job done.
Flickr Uploadr, free
This program is far from perfect (and well past due for an update), but coupled with picasa2flickr, it has proved consistently useful for getting my photos from Picasa to Flickr, metadata and all.
Apple’s pre-installed Dictionary isn’t anything special, but quick and easy access to definitions and synonyms (just a right-click in many programs), even while offline, is invaluable (along with easy access from Quick Search Box).
I keep my school schedule in iCal, along with any other important events. It also includes Facebook events and television shows I watch (thanks to On-My.tv).
I hastily signed up for an online backup service when I feared my drive was done for (and I didn’t have a hard drive to use), and I’ve used Backblaze ever since. The great thing about Backblaze is that I don’t have to think about it — it runs as a Preference pane, so my computer is always backed up remotely, and aside from the occasional peak to make sure everything’s running smoothly, I just let Backblaze do its thing. Not only is everything backed up online, but I’ve got versions going back 30 days, in case I need an earlier version of a file. It also provides online access to my computer’s hard drive from anywhere, since I can login and download any backed up file, any time. It’s $5 a month for unlimited space and bandwidth (you can even include external drives), so it’s well worth the price.
iStat Menus, $16
Bjango released version 3 of iStat Menus this year, and it’s continued to advance since then. The update also brought a price tag (it used to be free), but having constant access to network, memory and CPU usage from the menu bar is well worth $16. It’s great being able to glance up and see my download and upload speeds (or if I even have a network connection), or if a certain program is using too much processing power. I’ve even replaced the default battery and clock with the iStat Menus versions — the battery icon provides various details and a different look depending on the state (charging, charged, plugged in, etc.), and the clock gives me one-click access to a calendar, as well as the time in various (customizable) cities (not to mention sunrise, noon, sunset, moonrise and moonset times in each).
This simple menu bar app provides a clipboard history, and allows copying of more than one thing at a time. It’s quite useful just as a back up, for those times when something important is overwritten by a thoughtless “copy,” or something used previously is needed again. The ability to copy many different pieces of text at once is incredibly valuable, especially when copying things like quotes, links, or tags (it’s also an easy way to paste something in plain text). There are more advanced clipboard managers like Ayluro’s Corkboard, but Jumpcut’s simple effectiveness is perfect for my needs.
This simple utility adds a visual cue (like the one for volume, brightness, etc.) when the Caps Lock key is pressed. Never again type a sentence in all caps before realizing that Caps Lock is on.
HyperDock, free while in beta
A recent addition to the customization of my Mac, HyperDock is very useful for managing multiple windows in one app. Hovering over a dock icon provides a Windows 7-like popup of all open windows, which is a lot quicker than right-clicking.
The Unarchiver, free
A simple app for extracting archives with support for lots of formats, which I use as my default.